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The Metric

Sep 16, 2015

Water Ripples Through the Sustainable Development Goals

Now that the UN has finalized its Sustainable Development Goals, everyone wants to know how nations will implement them. What advice do the world’s chief water experts have? The Global Water Systems Project held a conference this past August in Bonn, Germany to find out.
Children in Laos
Children fetch water from a river in Laos. Credit: Asian Development Bank via Flickr Creative Commons

The struggle of implementing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) must feel like a game of Dizzy Bat. It incapacitates your senses. You have no idea where you’re going, and you’ll struggle mightily to get there. That’s how some of the world’s top water scientists felt at “Sustainable Development Goals: A water perspective,” a conference in Bonn, Germany that discussed how we should manage water – all 332,500,000 cubic miles of it.

The UN has agreed on the SDGs’ language, where water is mentioned twenty-two times in five separate goals that touch climate change, biodiversity, food security, energy security, health, gender equality, urbanization, institutional capacity, and sustainable consumption and production. Yet it remains unclear how policy-makers will decide to measure and monitor the goals. The principal researcher and office head of the International Water Management Institute [for] Southern Africa soberly explained just how opaque these key implementation procedures remain. Nearly 170 targets have been proposed, dropped, resubmitted, altered, or tossed around during the review process, but UN negotiators are calling for only 100 indicators to be considered for monitoring. It will be nearly impossible to determine how well countries implement SDGs if only half of the targets are tracked.

The Bonn conference was long on problems and short on solutions, but this is the quagmire we find ourselves in.  “We’re in the dark ages of knowing the global extent of water pollution problems,” according to one UNEP scientist. Water quality impairments like eutrophication, salt water intrusion, and manufactured chemical pollution have increased in the past several decades, but by how much? Some of these emerging contaminants’ sources remain a mystery, as well as how they spread through the environment.  One expert believes there’s a more fundamental source of water degradation: “We use water unreflectively.”

As the conference gyrated from exasperation to aspiration, scientists and policymakers offered the kind of wisdom that only decades of lived experience can instill. Here are some of their insights.

Scientists discuss water issues during the opening plenary.  Credit: Global Water Systems Project’s conference website

If the world achieves these goals, society will have overcome some of today’s most difficult political and informational challenges. The first hurdle involves how we think about these problems. Should water be understood and managed globally or locally, with green or gray infrastructure, and predominantly to serve people or ecosystems? This summer, Science sought answers in a debate about these issues, one that a founding member of the Global Water System Project “can’t even believe we’re still having.” By dividing water issues and distributing them across the SDGs, UN bureaucrats have created false trade-offs that assist some goals while hampering others, a point the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) first chief scientist did well to illustrate. Part of the world’s water problems is political.

Aside from the unwieldy political process of parsing through hundreds of goals, targets and indicators, many governments tasked with overseeing SDG implementation are grossly ill-equipped or uncooperative. According to one West African scientist, African governments are so “silo-ed” they don’t talk to each other even when damming a shared water basin. He warned that African data is so unreliable that policymakers should not use it, a sentiment echoed by a long-tenured professor who has seen governments “fudge indicators to make themselves look better.” Institutional capacity and high levels of corruption are merely secondary problems if no reliable data exist.

Three scientists discuss how science, policy, and practice intersect during a break-out session. Credit: Global Water Systems Project’s conference website

In the conference’s water quality assessment roundtable discussion - one of several breakout sessions and plenaries devoted to data - some of the world’s foremost water scientists questioned how they could inform policy-makers without adequate data. “We have lots of tools and indicators,” said a UNEP senior program manager, “especially for freshwater monitoring. Often it’s an argument between scientists about who has the better indicator. There’s a saturation there.” What’s needed is not only better data, but more of it – something our researchers discovered the hard way.

“We know almost nothing about groundwater and there’s no SDG that captures it,” lamented Dr. Stephen Foster, former President of the International Association of Hydrogeologists. He warned that little is known about groundwater salinity and seawater infiltration because the entire world’s datasets are coming from a handful of Canadian provinces, U.S. states, and a few ephemeral and ad-hoc research projects. There is more data about quantity than quality, particularly in Africa, but Professor Jacqueline McGlade, Chief Scientist and interim Director of UNEP’s Division of Early Warning and Assessment disputed this. “The data is there, but it’s not shared,” a claim that supported pleas for open reporting and a better system (ontology) for handling big data.

We’re left with a question. If the world’s scientists and policymakers cannot agree on how to monitor water issues even with adequate data – which the world does not have – how can the UN implement its goals? The Bonn conference-goers offered a set of nebulous suggestions, but a few smart ideas stuck out. Good proposals bubbled up in the capacity development and monitoring break-out session. The entire panel agreed that it’s crucial to communicate the benefits of complying with the SDGs because many politicians, particularly in developing countries, are completely ignorant about water quality issues and only act when a crisis arises. If you can demonstrate that caring for the environment has co-benefits, corrupt officials will see how safeguarding water could “enhance their legacies.” One gentleman asked about the power of indigenous knowledge, data that is often ignored by Western science. A panelist responded that his experience in small island states showed him that taking indigenous knowledge into account could “change the game socially and make implementation far more possible.”

Screenshot capture of the UNEP Live interface.  Credit:

UNEP is striving to aggregate the world’s water data on UNEP Live, a space that culls data from four different UN databases and citizen scientists in real time. This tool, which will be unveiled at the Paris climate change negotiations, brings data in from national reporting systems to the UN’s statistical offices to be streamlined, processed, and translated. Our researchers and many other conference attendees brought up the need for a global review platform, like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change but for water. One longtime UN member cautions, however, that this approach would expose how little has been accomplished on water issues worldwide, which is a political risk the UN will likely be loathe to take.

The conference’s most well articulated solution came from Joseph Alcamo, a Max Planck Research Prize winner and former chief scientist for UNEP. He believes that cross-cutting feedbacks, which fall into different silo-ed goals, do not have to be trade-offs. If these feedbacks are properly aligned, policymakers could achieve synergies across the SDGs, and the benefits will extend far beyond water goals. How they’ll achieve these synergies in practice, however, was a question left unanswered.